When you get a match between two of the top teams in the league you never know what to expect, but I believe that what might be the best match of the year could be taking place at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, UT on Saturday evening. RSL has found their form and if not for some awful calls, would have a couple of wins in their last few matches at home, while FC Dallas has been one of the hottest teams in the league and are just 2 points behind LA with 2 matches in hand. For RSL if they want to stay in the hunt for the Supporters' Shield this year they have to start getting wins at home, in this case they can close the gap on FCD with a win and take the season series from the boys from Dallas.
The two sides will face off again on Tuesday in US Open Cup action down at Pizza Hut Park, if you count last years regular season and playoff matches it will make the 7th time these two teams will have faced off in the past 12 months. I like the thoughts of the folks at mlssoccer.com in calling this rivalry the "Kreis Cup", with so many matches between the two teams, I think this one goes beyond the regular season and will have to be determined by all meetings in a calendar year. So far this year the teams have faced off once, a 0-0 draw in Dallas, so it is dead even going into Saturday.
the Key Match Up, Wildcards, and my keys to victory after the jump:
Key Match Up:
The Speed of FC Dallas vs. The Defense of Real Salt Lake
Brek Shea, Jackson, Marvin Chavez, Jair Benitez, and others provide FC Dallas with a lot of speedy players, to the credit of head coach Schellas Hyndman after a slow start and attempt to play a more control and possession style, the injury to David Ferreira forced a change to a style of play to take advantage of that. That style is a very aggressive attacking style when they are at home, but on the road it is more of a defend and counter attack. In their last 2 home matches they have dominated possession and averaged taking 23 shots per match, the result has been two big wins 4-0 over Portland and 2-0 over Columbus.
However away from Pizza Hut Park it is a very different story, in their last 3 matches away from home they have averaged just 10 shots per match, and with that more defensive mindset their possession has averaged about 35%, but the results have been just as good they are 2-0-1 in those matches. Their wins came against Chivas USA and the Sounders, the draw was at Houston, the difference on Saturday will be that none of those teams has a defense as good as RSL's. Houston and Chivas have both given up 22 goals on the season, while Seattle has given up 18, RSL despite the goals gifted to New England last week still have allowed just 12 goals this season, and just 8 at home. I think the loss of Nat Borchers will hurt the RSL defense a bit, I mean the guy is on most peoples list of the top 4-5 defenders in MLS, but we have seen that Chris Schuler is more than just a warm body that can fill a spot and his confidence has been growing as he gets more playing time. RSL will look to counter the speed of FC Dallas with good positioning, awareness, controlling the ball, and no mistakes, one factor that a lot of teams overlook is the speed of our defenders, Jamison Olave is one of the fastest guys in the league, and after watching Tony Beltran chase down and catch attackers for the last couple seasons I think they will be up for the task.
He has played in all but two matches this year, and while he plays more of a defensive minded role in their midfield alongside of Daniel Hernandez this year, he showed last year that he could be an offensive threat as well with 2 goals and 3 assists in just over 1,000 minutes of playing time. If you look at the last 3 matches you can see that Alexander completes about 2/3 rds of his passes but that the is also susceptible to giving up the ball when pressured and tackled. As RSL focus on the outside midfielders who are the catalyst of the FC Dallas attack, they will need to keep their eyes on Alexander and take advantage of applying a lot of pressure when he has the ball.
RSL fans have known for years that Will is one of the hardest working players in MLS and one of the engines for Real, well thanks to the improved stats coverage on mlssoccer,com you only need to look at the "heatmap" which measures the movements of the players, in fact here is the map from the New England match, you can see how much of the pitch Will uses during a match. Remember that will moved back to play outside back for the last 1.4 of that match. Will is a constant presence on the pitch, he finds his way to the ball both on offense and defense, despite missing a number of matches for national team duty, Will already had 2 goals in league play and with the style that FC Dallas plays he may be one of the guys who gets some good chances on goal.
Well each week MLS continues to see the officials make a spectacle of themselves, and while every match will always be impacted by the officials this year it seems that the matches aren't just impacted but they are being decided by the calls the officials are making, from random red cards, to some teams scoring 1/4 of their goals from the PK spot. It simply seems like far too much of the match is being impacted by bad calls, no calls, or just plain bizarre behavior from the officials. RSL and all of MLS know Ricardo Salazar far too well, in fact the Red Bull's Erik Soler's was fined 10K for questioning the red card Salazar gave to Thierry Henry. He is one of the few full time officials that MLS has. He has been in charge of 135 MLS matches, calls an average of 26.9 fouls per match, issues an average of 3.5 yellow cards per match, and he has issued 42 red cards (1 every 3 matches) and pointed to the PK spot 53 times (once every 2.5 matches). Knowing the way two of the lat three matches have gone at Rio Tinto, one only has to expect FC Dallas players to go down on any contact and for Salazar to buy it. I now head into every match with a very uneasy feeling about the officials, that is even worse given Salazar's reputation.
Keys to Victory:
1) Possession and passing, RSL have done well in their last 3 matches averaging 60% of the possession and completing over 80% of their passes, they will need numbers close to those in order to take down FC Dallas today. Both should be easy as I expect Dallas to play a defend and counter attack style.
2) Shots, when RSL takes over 15 shots they tend to score goals. I would love to see a number around 20 today and the counter of this stat is that I would like to see RSL try to keep FC Dallas to under 10 shots today. I think if we pressure the ball well and force shots from distance that we can count on Nick to make the saves that we are used to him making. We have to limit the shots that Shea and Jackson get off, Shea has scored in 4 straight matches, Jackson in two straight.
3) Composure, a complete intangible with no way to measure but I believe the difference between a 3-1 loss last weekend and the 3-3 draw that we got. Of course the RSL staff and players were outraged at the 3rd minute PK and red card, but within minutes they recovered and took over the match. They dominated possession, completed more passes, took more shots and had more shots on goal despite being down a man for over 60 minutes of the match and playing with 10 men for almost the entire match. FC Dallas has guys who like to get under your skin (yes I mean you Brek), and in the past have been good at getting opponents to react to them and get cards and silly fouls called against them. RSL will need to keep their composure in what is one of the highest stake matches of the season so far.
I think this will be a tough match, I fully expect FC Dallas to come out and survive the first 10-15 minutes (they have 0 goals in the first 15 minutes of matches this year) and then unleash their attack. They have 12 goals in minutes 16-45 this year. If RSL can get the first goal it could mean the match, RSL is 7-1-1 when scoring first and FCD is 1-4-1 when allowing the first goal. RSL has 3 goals in the first 15 minutes of matches this year, so an early goal could be the difference maker. I am going with a 2-1 RSL win in this one, should be fun as RSL will take the lead in the Kreis Cup.
OFF MY SOAPBOX